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'American Spartan' raises questions about author's romance with source

Mar. 28, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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The book “American Spartan” is about Army Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant, who tries to get Pashtun tribes to fight against the Taliban.

But author Ann Scott Tyson’s relationship with Gant raises several ethical questions.

A former Pentagon reporter, Tyson fell in love with Gant while she was working at the Washington Post, and they eventually married. She left the newspaper to live with Gant in Afghanistan as he tried to stand up Afghan Local Police. Gant was eventually pulled out of Afghanistan, in part because he was accused of providing Tyson with classified information.

“As most would view it, I crossed over to the dark side professionally by becoming involved with Jim and he with me,” Tyson writes. “I saw it differently, particularly because he is so open about his own failings and those of the U.S. military and Special Forces. If anything, through being close to Jim, I have gained a far more unvarnished view of the military and its flaws, having seen the institution from the inside.”

In an interview with Military Times, Tyson made clear that she never helped Gant in her capacity as a Washington Post reporter. She had also stopped covering the Pentagon when she met him.

“I think that is mainly important for people to understand — that I left journalism,” she said Friday. “People may have the conception because they know me as a war correspondent for the Washington Post that this was going to be a more traditional journalistic account, but it’s a work of narrative non-fiction.

“And that, I think, allowed me to see and to express many sides of this story that would have been absent from a traditional journalistic account. I think that gives the story great depth and breadth and insight into things, places and people that ordinarily would not have come to light.”

As a reporter, Tyson would never cover someone with whom she was in a relationship. But while at the Washington Post, she helped Gant write recommendations for senior U.S. commanders, such as Gens. David Petraeus and James Mattis.

“I couldn’t help but imagine, reading their responses, how shocked they would be if they learned of my behind-the-scenes role,” Tyson writes in the book.

Tyson told Military Times that she helped edit Gant’s reports in her free time, not when she was working. The reports, she says, were unclassified, so she did not need a security clearance to see them.

In her book, Tyson writes that several months into Gant’s deployment to Afghanistan, the two decided that she should join him. She took book leave from the Washington Post because she was unable to cover Gant’s mission as a reporter, but she was able to get book-related interviews with U.S. units at the same bases where Gant operated.

Asked if the book was just a pretext that allowed her to go to Afghanistan, Tyson insisted that she always intended to write about the Afghan Local Police program.

“I went to Afghanistan to write the book, and [in] the applications I made in every case for traveling there, I clearly put down ‘book author’ in requesting the coverage,” she said. “When I did interviews, everyone knew that I was writing a book. So that was the purpose of me being there.”

However, Tyson was not just a detached observer when she went to Afghanistan. Shortly after arriving, she was able to “gain some critical intelligence” for Gant when she sat in on a meeting with commanders in which they talked about moving his team. She promptly relayed the information to Gant and told him how he should respond.

Tyson told Military Times she happened to be there when the meeting took place and that it was not planned. Still, she acknowledged that she was a participant in the events she wrote about.

“When you’re a reporter, you deliberately stay invisible; you stay out of things; you keep yourself out of the story, as a reporter,” she said. “As an author, you have a different role, and I did become part of the story over time. The first draft of the book that I wrote had much less of me in it. In other words, I was programmed as a reporter to stay out of things, but once I became a book author, I evolved.”

In the book, Tyson writes that she played a vital role while living with Gant because she was able to speak to local Afghan women in Pashto, giving Gant’s team access to a world from which they had been excluded.

“I was a core and relatively experienced member of his team,” she writes. “I provided valuable information and perspective, and I had demonstrated my ability to navigate the Pashtun tribal culture and create valuable relationships with Afghan men as well as women.”

But Gant was taking an “incredible risk” by living with Tyson, she writes. He told local Afghans that Tyson was his wife, and that meant Tyson had to follow local customs.

If any tribesman had disrespected her, Gant would have been honor-bound to fight him. She could also have sparked a conflict by not following the Pashtun code of honor.

It was even more dangerous because the Taliban knew she was living with Gant, and a local Taliban commander talked about killing an American woman, she writes.

“Always know where your AK-47 is,” Gant told her. “If I ever ask you and you do not know where that rifle is, I will be furious. Do you understand?”

Reading “American Spartan,” it’s hard to tell when Tyson is acting as a reporter, an author, a lover or a soldier. This blurring of distinctions is best illustrated by two photographs that Tyson and Gant kept in their room in Afghanistan.

“One showed us cleaning weapons after training,” Tyson writes in the book. “In the other, I was posing playfully with Jim’s M4 carbine and AK-47 rifles. Below the photograph, I had written in Greek the admonition of Spartan wives as their husbands left for war: ‘Return with your shield or on it.’”

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